There is one question I’ve always wanted to ask Ed Stafford: “What is wrong with you?” Not to be a contentious hack hoping to get a rise, but to genuinely try and comprehend what it is that separates him from you, me, and most of the world’s population. Because who in their right mind chooses to walk the length of the Amazon River? Who would opt to be marooned on an uninhabited tropical island in the Pacific without food, water, or clothes? It’s not normal.
I recently got the chance to put this question to him.
“I think a bit of my brain is missing,” Stafford replies, jovially. “In all seriousness, there is a medical condition that I was told I had called ‘developmental immaturity’. It’s not flattering, but it acknowledges that we all have different elements to ourselves and the bit in me that hadn’t developed properly was the adult, responsible self. It explained why I used to get into trouble a lot, and why I was happy to take huge risks.”
To call his 2008 Walking the Amazon expedition a “huge risk” is perhaps an understatement. No-one had ever attempted this before (it is highly unlikely that anyone will attempt it again), and he went in knowing that there was a good chance he may not come out. It was a trip fraught with dangers: deadly wildlife; known drug ganglands; punishing temperatures; and an insane 6000 miles to cover in some of the world’s most inhospitable environments. The journey would take him 860 days – nearly two and a half years.
“It was succeed or die,” he says. “We were told we would die many times but we kept walking. It was a strong, violent demonstration of endurance; a two-fingered salute to anyone who doubted me. It broke me, re-built me, and was the catalyst for immense personal evolution.
“Of course, there were low moments. Many pages of my diary were streaked as tears had literally been dripping onto the page as I wrote in my hammock. At times in Peru, I would just ask myself one question: ‘Are you going forward?’ If the answer was yes, then nothing else mattered. I was doing what was required.”
While the physical demands of all his expeditions are substantial, the mental preparation is arguably of greater importance.
“I struggled hugely and had wars going on in my head”
“I think I was massively underprepared for the Amazon in terms of mental robustness,” Stafford says. “I struggled hugely and had wars going on in my head. In hindsight, I still had a long way to go to make peace with myself and who I was. Nowadays I have nothing to hide from. I can deal with whatever life throws at me.”
It humbled me, it exposed me to cultures that taught me how to live better and more honestly. It held up a mirror and made me realise that there were more important things in life than my own achievements.”